By far the most difficult and complicated story structure I’ve managed to develop so far is the VbP. Like a Hero by Proxy structure, the other characters play a significant role, lending their individual plotlines to the resolution of the story as a whole. There is also the same two-tier structure, which I called the inner and outer stories. The inner story is the actual plot of the book, while the outer is the overall setup of the world that makes the inner story possible.
The difference between the two is simple, but the effects of it are huge. In a HbP story, the outer story, such as the werewolf curse in the case of St. Martin’s Moon, doesn’t play an actual role in the story. Although it is affected by the actions taken by the proxies in the inner story, it’s not an actor. In a VbP story it is. In an HbP story, the characters know they’re in a situation, in a VbP story they don’t. The outer story is the proxy, and it’s only when the proxy acts in the story, that any of the other characters realize that they’re in a situation at all.
The example I came up with for this type of story, other than Ghostkiller, that is, is the Lord of the Rings, only an alternate version where Sauron doesn’t exist. The ring is the proxy, acting subtly on all the other characters to do its evil work, trying to get back to a Master that doesn’t exist. No one has thought about Sauron for 3000 years. Gandalf is a weird fireworks maker, and Frodo is busy dealing with all sorts of unpleasantness cropping up all over the Shire. Only when the Ring finally acts does anyone realize that there’s a subtle causation to all the stuff they’ve been dealing with, and then they spend the rest of the book trying to figure out what it is, so they can put an end to it.
The problem with this structure is that all of the characters, including the hero, are reacting to the situation. In LOTR Frodo may have delayed, but he took action before the Nazgul came looking. In a VbP situation, he is at best dealing with symptoms while unaware of the disease. This makes it very difficult to write a query, since there is no goal being pursued by the hero that carries him to the end of the story. I was never able to come up such a hook, and that’s one of the reasons why Ghostkiller has been self-published. The best I could come up with was to get my hero right to the top of that slippery slope, that moment just before the proxy struck, and just…let it go.
This being the second story structure I created, in this case for my novel St. Martin’s Moon. Again, it wasn’t planned or anything. None of my books ever are, but this one less so than most. I came up with the idea for St. Martin’s Moon while browsing the shelves of a used book store, where I saw a book titled Blood Moon. My immediate thought was, “Wow! A werewolf novel set on a lunar colony, great idea!” It wasn’t such a book, but the idea stayed with me.
The main problem with the story was that I had no idea how to write a mystery of a horror novel. By the time I discovered this, I was two chapters into the book. To keep going, I followed the characters around, and let them make the story, which resulted in the story structure named above. Much of what I’ll say about HbP is based on the one story that I know of. I haven’t really developed the theory of it. I do know that trying to summarize a story like this is next to impossible.
There are at least two situations (states of affairs, whatever you want to call it), one inside the other, and the plots of the story are contained by the inner situation. For SMM, the outer situation was the curse of lycanthropy itself, and the inner was a werewolf attack that took place on a lunar colony.
In a HbP story, the hero catalyses a number of other characters (the proxies) into motion of their own (another name for an HbP story is a catalyst story), motion which is otherwise independent of the hero. No one story line, not even the hero’s, is sufficient to bring about the resolution of the whole story, but all are necessary.
The one character who does not play a direct role in the resolution of the plots is the hero himself (or herself, if the hero is female, but being male my default pronoun is male too). The role of the proxies is to do what the hero would normally do in a more linear story. The role of the hero is to get all the proxies in the same place to do that.
Which doesn’t sound very heroic on the face of it, but remember there are two situations at play here. Not only is the hero at ground zero of a whole bunch of equal and opposite reactions all centered around him (ouch!), his character development throughout the book is what allows him to become the link which unites the inner and outer situations (double ouch!), allowing them both to be resolved, preferably at the same time, in the same set of actions.
He might even live.
A little while ago a lady on the Writer Unboxed Facebook group asked about stories with multiple protagonists, without any particular lead. This is not the standard model, which calls for a single lead, or a group all possessing the same ultimate goal, usually following a single lead. Books that do not follow the single-lead model are harder to categorize, and therefore to sell.
But there are other story structures, for more complex stories. Ensemble stories, for example, have no central lead, but follow several characters, whose individual plot lines are only tangentially connected, if at all. I know of several films like this (Love Actually and American Graffiti, for example), but no books come to mind (a cursory search on Goodreads turns up a list of such books, none of which I have read or would categorize in this way), and so obviously I haven’t written any either.
Another story model is one I call the Braided Story, also fairly common and one I have seen elsewhere. Jurassic Park is such a story, to some extent, with a group of characters brought together, then when disaster strikes, split up into smaller groups to pursue their own paths until they regroup, and complete their objective to escape the park.
The characters in a braided story do not all have to come from the same place, in fact it’s better if they don’t. (In that respect JP is not exactly a braided story.) I created a braided story in my novel A Warrior Made, although I did not think of it as such or plan it that way.
As one might expect, the basic idea behind a braided story is separation and reconnection. The story starts with the separation, of course, a group of people who already have some degree of connection, sundered by some unexpected and perhaps inexplicable event. The sundering should continue until there are at least three groups, since that’s how many you need to make a decent braid.
The story from there will be more about the reconnection, and that’s where the character growth takes place. Since the normal and expected methods of connection have been severed, some of the people involved must discover and develop some other means of connecting with some of the others.
In A Warrior Made, I handled the braiding by having all the separate plots run in parallel in each chapter. In a couple of places I even characters from one strand shift into a different strand. The reconnection was shown as each section impinged somehow on the section that came after it, even though no one knew the connection was taking place. Janosec would tell a story about Tarkas in one section, and in the next Tarkas would find himself thinking about the subject of that story for no obvious reason.
Like a braid, the separate strands of the story must eventually come together for the resolution of the plot, not necessarily all at once. The rejoining of sundered groups should also be due to some of the changes that have taken place while they were sundered, not simply timing, luck, or coincidence. The group that comes together at the end should not be the same group that was separated. If it is, you’ve done something wrong.
A lot of people have been making a lot of noise lately about the “need for diversity” in stories, which confuses me. I don’t see that the story needs it so much as some portion of the reading public might want it, to the point of seeking out stories that have it over stories that don’t. The publishing industry might therefore want to see more diverse books, either authors or characters, in an effort to sell more copies to more people, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a need for diversity in the story, or an indicator of the quality of the story itself.
This is not to say that a story should not be affected if the lead detective in the case was black instead of white. Of course it would be. The cause of diversity would not be well served if the author simply stuck the word ‘black’ in there. Characters don’t ‘just happen to be’ black, or female, or gay, etc. People have history, experience, knowledge, and if they’re lucky, evolution. Taping the word ‘death’ over ‘stun’ in ‘stun ray’ doesn’t make it a death ray. The actions and words of that character would have to be very different. The reactions of those around him would be very different.
My claim is that the difference in behavior would and should be enough to tell the reader that this is a black guy without the author having to throw in an extra word like ‘black’. There needs to a reason for each extra word, and the fact that the character is black isn’t it. The stun ray has to be a death ray and at some point it has to act as one, in which case adding the label does serve a purpose to the plot, by indicating the change in its nature (and the nature of its maker). In Phule’s Company, one character attacked anyone who used words like ‘short’ in her presence. Guess why. But if action and dialog aren’t enough, if the death ray never gets fired, then the diverse nature of the character is so irrelevant that again, the extra word should be edited out.
On the other hand, the reader who goes looking for diverse stories probably isn’t looking for them for the fun of it. The search for diversity is at base a search for realism (of a specific sort), and an unrealistic portrayal won’t serve that goal. But what counts as ‘realism’ in this context?
What counts as realism in any context? My only real resource, as an author, is my own life and my own observations, but even those observations are all understood in terms of my own life. At bottom, then, the only thing I can realistically portray is me, and only to the extent that I was paying attention at the time. Can I portray another white male realistically? Only to the extent that he is like me. Which is the same extent to which I can realistically portray anyone, including space aliens, dogs, and elm trees (assuming they were sentient).
Which doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try. I’m allowed to fail. I’m not allowed to not try.
If I was asked to make a list of books or movies that left me wanting more, I’m not sure I could give you one. I have a bunch of movies and books that I’m constantly going back to, though. Rewatching and rereading are some of my favorite things, but I don’t know if it’s because of any sense of wonder, since relatively few SF or fantasy novels are on my lists, and where they are, it’s not usually because of their distinctive SF/F elements.
As anyone who’s read my stories (come on, there must be one of you) knows, my main interest is not the gizmos, but the people using them. So maybe my ‘sense of wonder’ is about other things.
What makes even the gizmos wondrous, to my mind, is the human relation. One comparison I often make is Hellboy vs Van Helsing. These two movies both end with climactic battles between giant monsters, but in Van Helsing they’re smart enough to morph back into human forms every so often. Give us human beings someone to relate to. Hellboy had neither, and it was hard to care much about a climactic battle between two cartoons, neither of whom looked human.
The climax of Phantom Menace (Star Wars episode 1, I forgive you for forgetting about it) had much the same problem. A war of CGI robots versus aliens isn’t very enthralling. Far more ‘wondrous’ was the scene of Ben stepping out onto a platform in the middle of this giant empty shaft, in A New Hope. While I love the Godzilla movies, most of them fail to instill any sense of wonder, except for the American versions (yes, even the bad one), which constantly show the giant monster from a human perspective.
Having just taken a look at my DVD collection, I notice that the SF/F movies I have in it (a small percentage, more F than SF) all have a significant human component. The Adjustment Bureau, Next, The Princess Bride, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Dark City, The Truman Show, District Nine, Dr. Horrible. I’ve watched any of these more often than any of the Harry Potter films. I prefer Back to the Future 3 over either of the first two. I have Buffy and Angel, but I rewatch Chuck, Pushing Daisies, and Dead Like Me. Except that I don’t rewatch Chuck anymore, since I finished my fanfiction rewrite, a rewrite (of the gizmo-laden plot) that I created precisely because Chuck’s human themes inspired me to write it.
That’s the name of the first chapter of David Gerrold’s book Worlds of Wonder, which I bought from him personally at I-Con last weekend. We also traded books, a copy of my St. Martin’s Moon for his Little Horrors. He may read mine (I suspect lots of authors trade books with him), but I’m already reading WW. I read the bio at the front, and noticed that he failed to mention a book that I had on my shelves, a Star Trek novel called The Galactic Whirlpool. I got it signed the next day, of course.
This chapter is more in the way of an introduction, some biographical notes and a discussion of the basic nature of stories which will underlie the rest of the book. So it’s a bit unfortunate that the definition of a story presented in this chapter is not one I entirely agree with. “A person has a problem, he explores the problem until he understands it, finally he makes a choice (usually a difficult one) that produces a transformation of understanding and resolves the difficulty. So a story is about the experience of problem solving and the lessons learned.” (p. 4)
I’m not sure I agree with the whole ‘makes a choice’ bit. Sure it feeds into the whole idea that the hero makes his own destiny, chooses his course, etc. But I like to think my heroes will do the right thing once they know what the right thing is, so making the choice is pretty much a given once a proper understanding has been reached. That’s why they’re heroes. (Which may be why we’ve started calling them ‘Main Characters’ or ‘Protagonists’, rather than heroes. ‘Hero’ has a certain moral component to it that those other terms don’t.)
The problem for a hero is understanding the issue. Sometimes the hero has to make a difficult choice, relinquish some cherished belief, in order to achieve the necessary understanding, but once he has it he’s good to go. Which may be why my stories have so many characters in them who aren’t the hero, because watching a hero do the right thing is dull. Maybe frenetic and plot-heavy, but worth little in terms of character development.
Or it could be Mr. Gerrold’s science fiction background talking. The understanding the hero arrives at could be a theory, like all theories in need of verification. The difficult choice could be the Hero’s decision to test that theory with his own skin, and perhaps those of his group.
On the other hand, regarding his remarks on the benefits of enthusiasm over rage as a driving force behind the writing, we are in much more agreement. I’ve never written from rage, so I have trouble imagining how that would work for me. Enthusiasm, however, I have a lot of experience with. I wrote the equivalent of 8 novels thanks to enthusiasm, in the fanfiction realm, which also served to fulfill my million-word apprenticeship, about which more in some other post.
I was given this book in exchange for a review, but it is the sort of book I like to read and I am definitely recommending it to my own daughter, who shares my tastes in this.
This book introduces the two heroines of the series, Harmony and Elise, two girls living very different lives in different parts of the country, with very similar problems. Harmony, the strong-willed and self-reliant daughter of a ‘wild-child’ mother, first accidentally wishes a young man to death in a fit of embarrassment, and then restores a box of dead science lab frogs to life. Elise sees ghosts, and those around her see them too. As their powers grow and the manifestations become more severe, they are offered refuge at a school for students with gifts like theirs, only to find that they have simply traded one set of problems for another, increasingly dangerous set.
While I expect any story about a school for magically-gifted youth will invite a comparison to Harry Potter (one of the girls even refers to herself as a ‘mudblood’), I was more charmed with similarities to movies such as The Sixth Sense (and perhaps Groundhog Day) and a personal favorite of mine, the TV show Pushing Daisies. But these are small things, and the story goes its own way with all of them, which I very much appreciated. The real hazards the two young ladies face are far more mundane than any at Hogwarts, and more relatable, the magical overtones being highlighted by the alternating chapters, which allow us to see each girl from within and without as they A very enjoyable book, the first I have read in this series or by these authors. In the interests of full disclosure form their partnership.
I’m definitely looking forward to volume 2 and the next stage of their story.